Commuters think they know why the Sheffield to Manchester rail service has been so ‘dire’ recently

The rail service between Sheffield and Manchester has been branded ‘dire’, and it seems the introduction of new trains is at least partly to blame.

Tuesday, 10th December 2019, 10:46 am
Updated Thursday, 19th December 2019, 11:20 am

Trains on the Hope Valley line running through the Peak District have never been renowned for their timekeeping, but disappointed passengers claim reliability has plunged to new depths in recent weeks.

On Saturday evening, at least four services between the two cities were cancelled, causing havoc, and users claim such disruption has become the norm rather than the exception.

Official statistics would appear to support that assertion too, showing how just over a third (33.47 per cent) of services run by TransPennine Express and less than half (45.4 per cent) of those operated by Northern arrived on time between October 13 and November 9, the latest period for which data is available.

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Only a third of TransPennine Express services arrived on time between October 13 and November 9 (pic: Chris Morgan)

Chris Morgan, chairman of the Friends of Dore and Totley Station, in Sheffield, said there appeared to be a number of factors behind the disruption, including the new trains being introduced and working conditions for Northern employees.

Both Northern and TransPennine Express are upgrading their fleets, with the former gradually replacing its much-maligned Pacers and the latter bringing in new ‘state-of-the-art’ Nova trains.

But welcome as the new trains are, Mr Morgan said the extra training needed for staff to familiarise themselves with the vehicles was affecting the amount of employees available.

And he told how for Northern staff in the west of the country, including between Sheffield and Manchester, Sunday shifts were classed as voluntary overtime, which he said too few workers were currently willing to do.

A spokesman for Northern confirmed that it was going through what he called ‘one of the biggest driver training programmes the industry has seen’, which he said was ‘having an impact on some of our services’.

“We have not, however, carried out pre-planned cancellations on the Hope Valley line in the past three weeks, though there were some earlier in November,” he added.

Mr Morgan claimed that whatever the reason, the service for passengers in the run-up to Christmas was not acceptable.

“The new trains were late being delivered and the drivers and guards are now having to learn how to use them, which is causing disruption,” he said.

“Recently it was announced there would be a two-hourly service on the Hope Valley line but it turned out to be three hours, which is absolutely hopeless and didn’t go down well with passengers having to call a friend to ask for a lift.

“TransPennine Express is having similar problems to Northern, meaning morning services which are meant to be formed of six carriages often have only three, so it’s standing room only.

“It’s fair to say the service on the Hope Valley line at the moment is dire.”

Northern had promised to withdraw all Pacer trains by the end of 2019 but some are now expected to remain in use until well into next year, with much speculation that South Yorkshire will be the last to see the back of them.

Northern said that due to delays in the construction and delivery of its new trains, a small number of Pacers would need to be retained for a ‘short period of time in 2020’, a situation it said was ‘not unique’ to the operator.

A spokesman for the company told how 10 Pacers had already been retired, with the majority still due to be removed by the end of the year, and from next Monday, December 16, the operator would have 52 of its 101 new trains in service.

Referring to the retention of some Pacers, he added: “We understand that customers will be disappointed and we are finalising proposals for customer support and offers for customers on those routes on which Pacers will be used in 2020.”

Passengers are still waiting for a long-promised upgrade to the Hope Valley line which would pave the way for a third fast train per hour between Sheffield and Manchester, and an hourly stopping service, rather than one every two hours, running through the Peak District.

When the go-ahead was finally given in February 2018, many years after the project was first mooted, Network Rail said that subject to funding work was due to begin in 2019 and take up to three years.

But Network Rail, which is responsible for the project, told The Star in September that construction was now not expected to start until 2022 and was scheduled for completion by 2023 – a delay branded ‘extraordinary’ by rail campaigners.

TransPennine Express said in a statement: “Unfortunately, on Saturday we had some part-cancellations on our South route due to a shortage of train crew due to a short-term temporary accelerated training programme we are running and we are very sorry to those who were caught up in this. Any customer that was delayed for more than 30 minutes can of course claim delay repay through our website.

“From the December timetable change which is taking place this weekend, we are introducing improvements along our South route. From Sunday, customers will see new early morning and late night services between Cleethorpes and Sheffield. Also, as we introduce more new trains across other routes it will free up extra carriages for us to run at peak times and at weekends.”